Years had passed since the last time we had seen the stars this clear and bright. Even longer since I could remember having seen the Milky Way. We let the cold beauty of the heavens overwhelm us while the world froze around us. We retreated to our den of sleeping bags and heavy blanket when we could resist no longer and struggled to sleep in the thin, 4,500 meter (14,764ft) air for the next day’s hike.
Shortly before embarking on our panamerican voyage, Jordan stumbled across images of a Peruvian mountain streaked with impossibly bright and clearly-defined streaks of colored earth, which, contrary to initial belief, had not been photoshopped.
The mountain’s name is Vinicunca and is also known as The Rainbow Mountain and The Mountain of Seven Colors. We immediately added it to our list of panamerican must-see items.
We set boot to trail at 7 a.m., before the tour buses were due to arrive, in the hopes of stealing a quiet summit moment just for ourselves, away from the incoming throngs. Muleteers would soon ferry the less hardy tourists up the trail on mules and the evidence of the trail’s mixed use nature presented itself in an unglamorous mixture of mud and shit that slowed our uphill progress.
Despite our early start, we were not alone on the trail. Three generations of Inca women materialized from within the morning fog and walked in step with us up into the high valley at the base of the Rainbow Mountain. They had spent the night in the open, having bet on being able to trade meat for lodging.
No one would trade with us, the grandma said and so they made camp out of a few woollen blankets and the cold earth. Are you here to see the mountain, we asked them? No, the daughter replied, we’re walking to the next village over, to visit people.
Our paces eventually diverged and Jordan and I continued our ascent with only the intermittent company of the free roaming alpacas. The stripes of Vinicunca were visible for some time in the valley’s clear and sparse air. Bands of minerals had spend millions of years squeezed side by side underneath the earth. The birth of the Pacific Ring of Fire thrust them to the surface in a series of violent upheavals. They now rest in their current location, crumbling in a slow reversal of their subterranean past.
Vinicunca’s neighboring and seemingly nameless peak provides a good overview of both the many colored ridge and of the nearby Ausangate, one of Peru’s ten tallest, at 6,372 meters (20,905.5ft). After a few minutes basking in the view of seemingly endless high peaks, we descended and reunited with the three women, now resting in the col between Vinicunca and the viewpoint peak.
A small stone wall offered protection from the wind and we sat and shared our food with the women. Jordan asked if she could take their picture, at which they expressed immediate delight.
We don’t have any photos of the three of us together, the daughter said. They smiled and laughed, thanking us for the offer. Then they stood for the photos and the smiles vanished, replaced immediately with stern, no-nonsense expressions.
Take a picture with us, they invited, once again all smiles. We happily obliged, but failed to take a hint and continued smiling for the photos, resulting in images in which it appears that naïve and arrogant foreigners have forced themselves upon hapless natives, who are none too happy about their situation.
How will we get the photos to you, we asked the women, who looked like time travellers from the 15th century.
I have WhatsApp, the daughter replied.
We parted ways once more, each of us disappearing into the folds at the feet of Peru’s great mountains.